Mark Doty: On Robert Creeley

In 1950 Charles Olson published his essay "Projective Verse" and systematized an aesthetic rooted in the work of Pound and Williams. . . . the poem Olson advocated must work in "open" form, finding its organic shape in the dynamic relation of breath and perception. "Form," Olson quoted Robert Creeley in a statement that was to become an essential credo, "is never more than an extension of content. . . .

"Open form" stood in contrast to what Olson described as "that verse which print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, in English and American, and have still got, despite the work of Pound & Williams." Williams responded to Olson's dictums with enthusiasm, and Robert Creeley notes that "it was an excitement many of us shared." Creeley (and later Levertov) would elaborate upon and clarify Olson's pronouncements that "a poem is . . . a structure possessed of its own organization in turn derived from the circumstances of its making." Structure, then, must arise from the content as it is perceived in the act of composition. There is a new reliance on spontaneity here, a new investigation which replaces fixed form with the idea of entering the field of the poem, creating the text as a sort of experience in itself whose form is determined by what will most embody that experience. Olson's long poems then, such as the Maximus sequence, work by means of complex juxtapositions of present and past, replicating or recording the speaker's field of perception.

Robert Creeley's work within the same conceptual framework led to radically different results, for Creeley's field of consciousness is focused, restricted to a particular incident or meditation, and the force of emotion which infuses his most powerful work seems absent in Olson. The operation of intellect, for Creeley, seems to lie almost entirely within the form itself, in the pattern of perception, and in his scrupulous attention to the perceiving mind and heart at work at the contemplation of compelling emotional issues. In the short, breath-determined lines of his poems of the fifties (collected in 1962 as For Love), Creeley hammers out an intense, rigorous aesthetic. Almost void of concrete objects, these poems somehow succeed in making feeling itself seem concrete; one feels as if one were eavesdropping, with the permission of the speaker, on an intimate address which gives one just enough information to feel included. Because we have come upon the speaker during a moment of great emotional intensity, we are able, through our seeming overhearing, to be present at a moment of tenderness, of revelation. These spare, barely furnished poems seem essential, representing not so much a distillation of experience and meditation as an utterance spoken carefully, almost haltingly, at times with great clarity and concentration.

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Title Mark Doty: On Robert Creeley Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Mark Doty Criticism Target Robert Creeley
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry
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